Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Quirks and Foibles

It seems to me that the best writers, the ones whose books really stay with me, are connoisseurs of human nature. Being proficient at craft, or excelling at it, is good, but not enough, nor is a crackerjack plot. I relish learning things about the human condition and people.

I also think this is part and parcel of what propels some people to become writers—this desire to wrestle with and better understand the human condition. Do writers become observers of people so they have material? Or, do acute observers of people become writers so they have something to do with all that knowledge they’ve accumulated? Chicken? Egg? For most writers I know, this people watching begins at the earliest of ages.

I’ve also decided that people fall into two groups; those who like and are attracted to perfection, and those who are charmed by and attracted to quirks and foibles. I am willing to bet that a majority of writers fall into that latter category.

The thing about perfection is that it is often boring in its beauty, there is nothing innately interesting or human about it, no place for me in its vista. And I say this as a rank perfectionist—if I am not perfect, I have failed, so as a goal, perfection holds huge appeal for me. And yet, what I love most about people is their quirks and foibles. Their personal behavioral tics and oddities.

~The thirty five year old muscle bound guy who still has a baby animal calendar.
~The precision machinist who can’t get the sugar in the sugar bowl or the coffee grounds in the filter, but can execute the most precise of measurements on a metal lathe.
~The sleek, sexy brand spanking new black dodge charger being driven by an eighty year old lady.
~The woman who feels called to the priesthood, but also has an unholy obsession with Jimmy Choos.
~The guy who drives a gorgeous Porsche, but can’t stand driving in traffic so he rarely gets it out.
~The laid back surfer girl who cannot be in the same room with a change jar without sorting the coins into neat little stacks.

Quirks can also be physical—the kid whose ears turn bright red when he gets embarrassed, the stunning woman who bites her lip or nails, the kid whose twirled his hair so often he has a bald spot…

Quirks and foibles are often a chink in our armor, an indicator at how hard won our mastery of some skill or behavior really is. They are a physical manifestation of our deepest level conflicts.

Take a look at the people around you. What is it that most endears them to you? I’m betting it’s not their straight A report card or excellent punctuality record. No, I’m betting it’s that little something that only they do, it might even be a tad odd or strange…The thing is, a lot of this behavior can cross over into the highly annoying, it’s a matter of degree really.

But I wonder if we use that enough in our writing?

What quirks and foibles do your characters have? Not just pasted on to simply be funny or clever, but one’s you can trace back to their development as a person?

5 comments:

Karen Strong said...

This is a great post!

I think I should really pay better attention the "quirks" of my characters instead of pasting some random tick on them. Something authentic.

Thanks for giving me something to develop and think about.

L.H. Walker said...

Quirks and foibles all the way! I'm still doing my 3 X 5 cards for my characters (thanks for the exercise), but in real life I was fascinated by the middle aged man at the zoo who kept pulling out a comb and running it through his beard! I've written whole stories about oddly dressed/oddly behaving people I've seen on trains, too.

THALIA CHALTAS said...

One of my character's quirks is that she thinks she is mature and knowledgeable - strong, sure of herself, adamant - and this is her achilles heel. She is stronger than many of my previous protagonists, and that what causes the fall.

Great post, Robin!

Celtic Traveler said...

FUNNY!

quirks-nice.

story_weaver said...

The one character I wrote that was quirk-less I hated and killed.
(I just re-read that I realized how insane it sounds.)